“Amerika, du hast es besser als unser Kontinent, der alte, hast keine verfallenen Schlösser und keine Basalte. Dich stört nicht im Innern zu lebendiger Zeit, unnützes Erinnern und vergeblicher Streit.” (Beginning of “Den Vereinigten Staaten”, J. W. v. Goethe, 1827)
Many things are prematurely declared dead in these daunting as well as mesmerizing days. A look into the commentaries on the U.S. presidential elections indicates that data is dead, polling is dead, facts died a long time ago and media influence is dead as well. Some see the end of “the West”, or even the end of non-populist politics. Democracy however, seems to be alive. The only fact-check that matters now is that Donald J. Trump will become the next President of the United States. Considering the atmosphere of discontent, which dominated the campaigns of Republicans as well as Democrats, one can doubt if Goethe’s claim is a proper introduction for an analysis of the situation. “Amerika, du hast es besser” – loosely translated “America you are better off” – really? Yet, these elections have the potential to make citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere rethink their negative attitude towards politics and remind decision-makers that they cannot take things for granted. The elections are a wake-up call for the foreign policy of Germany and the European Union, in the sense that the near future will bring more controversy, more conflict and more necessity to stress and defend unalterable values. We are at a historical turning point.
Notwithstanding the controversies, the scale of cleavages in the American society and the roughness of the Trump campaign, it is possible to highlight some aspects without being hostile or fatalistic. The first aspect lies in the power of surprise. The presidential elections symbolize the strength, allure and potential of democracy. This diagnosis may come as a surprise to many observing the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It refers to the institutional procedure of an election and the possibility of being surprised. It is not a comment about the actual result, neither one about the events and tone during this year’s campaigns. The presentation of alternatives is at the heart of politics and as long as legitimate alternatives are not silenced, surprise can happen. The power of surprise also debunks popular mistrust in democratic procedures. There simply is no “system” that only benefits some elites, manipulates people and produces fixed results arranged in advance. On the contrary, the often all too negative image of U.S. democracy is spread by power holders in regimes without a choice, where elections are indeed rigged and the power of government is arbitrary. Change on the other hand can also be destructive and this leads to the second aspect, the inevitable fragility of democracy. As German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde once noticed: “The liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” There is no way of safeguarding a political system against a willful and unopposed destruction of freedoms, as even if those safeguards would exist, they would require infringing freedoms too much in the first place. This paradox creates an obligation for the governing to respect and obey the self-given constraints to political power. At this time, there is no indication that a President Trump would demolish this self-restraint and in particular, there is no reason to believe that the U.S. society would allow such a damage. The third aspect is the American-esque of the whole situation. In fact, Donald Trump epitomises an American myth, he is a very American figure. Although he did not go exactly from rags to riches, he certainly is an underdog in politics. Whereas Bernie Sanders claimed to be anti-establishment even after 25 years in Congress, Trump is indeed a newcomer. He conquered the other Republican candidates and went on to create a campaign that seemed to be solely based on self-persuasion, bad manners and the will to win. People tend to like the underdog, and in this regard, his win could not be more American.
Disruption is an opportunity for self-assurance and openly advocate the good news certainly is an American approach (at least in the eyes of a German observer). Such a perspective tries to make the best out of the situation and gives it an optimistic spin. Turning disruption into transition is what President Obama is doing now. The downside is that the nice picture is not necessarily a true one. However, we do not know yet. It is simply ignored here what the candidate Trump has said and how he behaved, as there are reasons to believe that none of this is the cause for his success. Politics is about emotions. Emotions are more important than content and this explains why populism is an integral part of all politics. Voters do not expect politicians to fulfil the promises they made during the election campaign. Elections are not about actual policy-making, they are about deciding who makes the policies. There will be no wall at the border to Mexico payed for by the Mexican government, neither will economic growth induced by massive tax cuts bring back the industrial jobs lost in the past decades. Voters know that and they might like the boldness of these claims, their reality-defying appeal, more than the actual realization. Taking this into account, ignoring the candidate Trump and preparing for the President Trump is what needs to be done now. Above all by himself. In his future office, Donald Trump will have access to the oval boardroom, but he will also find himself in an unfamiliar position. He will be: The Apprentice.
Disclaimer: The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.